By Davies Wakefield
I attended my first luau when I was 9 years old. Our next-door neighbors, who were native Hawaiians, were celebrating the matriarch’s 80th birthday. Tutu, as she was known, was born when Hawaii was a kingdom ruled by the Kamehameha family. I think she had a touch of Alzheimer’s at the time but made the families daily poi just as a bakery would make daily bread. We youngsters would watch mesmerized as she slowly, repeatedly pounded the taro root into library glue like consistency. She was a dear old lady who always loved us children and gave us unrequested hugs and kisses whenever we came over to play.
A luau is a distinctive Hawaiian tradition that dates back to 1819 when King Kamehameha II decreed that men and women could eat meals in each other’s presence. The usual dishes were chicken baked in coconut milk with taro, kalua pig that was cooked in a rock-lined pit for 8-10 hours, and various types of seasoned raw fish called poke. The feast was served in a communal setting with everyone seated on woven coconut leaf mats and the food served family style. No utensils were used so everyone ate with their hands. A bottle of Johnny Walker Red was placed about every three feet among the platters of food, as part of the celebration. The two granddaughters Kaipo and Pu’unani performed the traditional hula accompanied by the haunting, emotional, Hawaiian, slack string guitar. The symbolism of that music, that was lost to me at the time, was the passing of the old Hawaiian traditions into the new world of jet airplanes and tourism.
The one thing that made an overwhelming impression on me at the time was the taste of that kalua pig. As I ate the pig, I kept licking my fingers because in addition to the wonderful taste, there was stickiness to the pig that I had never experienced before. I went back for more repeatedly until my stomach stood out like Paul Newman’s in “Cool Hand Luke.” This was the start of my lifelong love of slow cooked pork in all its various incarnations. From the smoked shoulder I had at Stamey’s in Greensboro North Carolina; to the char sui at Lung Kee on Gage Street in Central Hong Kong; to the carnitas at Los Panchos just off the Paseo de la Reforma near Chapultepec park in Mexico City DF, the secret to all these porky manifestations is cooking the meat low and slow. This method of cooking pork breaks down all the collagen, tendons, and cartilage, which produce that stickiness and delicious pork flavor.
With credit to Ruth Rogers of River Café, I have found a way to make a version of this slow cooked pork using locally available resources. This recipe requires a bit of time in the oven so planning for your party is essential. A six-pound boneless shoulder will feed a nice crowd. Figure about a pound per person and do the math.
Spalla di Maiale Arrostita Lentamente (Slow Roasted Shoulder of Pork)
6-7 pound boneless shoulder of pork
10 garlic cloves peeled
½ cup toasted fennel seeds
2 Tbs. coarse kosher or sea salt
1 Tbs coarse ground pepper
1 Tbs red pepper flakes or to taste if you like a little more zing
Juice and zest of 5 lemons
3 Tbs Olive oil
Crush the garlic with the fennel seeds and make a slurry with the salt, pepper, chili flakes, lemon zest and olive oil and smear it all over the shoulder.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and roast the shoulder for about thirty minutes or until the pork starts to sizzle. Pour on half the lemon juice and turn the oven down to 250 degrees F.
Cook for about 6-7 hours and baste with the remaining lemon juice. The roast is done when the meat starts to fall apart when you twist a fork in it.
I served this meal with twice-baked sweet potatoes filled with chives and parmesan cheese; but a good vinegary cabbage slaw would also go well with this. You do not need any barbecue sauce with this meal; in fact, a sweet barbecue sauce will interfere with the wine flavors.
The wines I have chosen are made in the tradition of the old practice of field blends that farmers used in Italy and France in the olden days to reduce the risk of a failed crop. By planting five or six varieties of grapes, the farmers reduced the chances that a crop failure of one of the varieties could lead to a complete loss of that season. The farmers/vintners also found that by blending several varietals together that the overall effect was greater than the sum of the individual parts (probably the earliest form of what we now call Synergy).
These wines are rustic, everyday wines to be drunk rather than sipped. These wines are wines that have been, and are, everyday meal wines for my family. These are wines for meatballs and spaghetti, meatloaf, deli sandwiches, grilled sausages and the ubiquitous casserole. These wines can be drunk in bistro glasses rather than fine crystal. This wine can stand a little chill for a picnic in July. They represent the humble beginnings of the wine industry and are relative values in their category. For me, zinfandel blends are a reminder of the early days of my marriage when all we could afford were the gallon jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, which we drank with our homemade lasagna. All of these wines are from California.
The first wine is the Bogle Essential Red 13.5 percent alcohol and $9. This wine is a blend of old vine Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah. The Cabernet adds a bit of drying effect and stiffness to the jammy mixture. This is a new offering from Bogle that has occupied the outstanding varietal value bracket for many years. From a value standpoint, this was our favorite. The grapes for this wine come from cool climate vineyards in Mendocino County along the Pacific Coast and El Dorado County in the eastern part of the state between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.
The second wine is Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red Lot #60 13.5 percent alcohol and $11. The spec sheet does not specify the blend but from a taste stand point I can speculate that there is Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah but no Cabernet. This is probably proprietary information that the company wants to protect from the competition. Marietta does state that the grapes were grown in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. They call this their kitchen sink blend and have been making it for over 30 years. It is very consistent and has been a favorite of my family for many years.
The last wine is the 2011 Ridge Three Valleys Sonoma County 13.8 percent alcohol and $24. This is a mixture of 65 percent Zinfandel, 20 percent Petite Sirah, 9 percent Carignan, 3 percent Mataro, 5 percent Alicante Bouchet, and 1 percent Grenache. Ridge has been making this blend since 2001. The Mataro or Mouvedre, as I have written in a previous column, adds a tannic grip as well as darker color; while the Carignan adds depth and vibrancy. Ridge winery has been one of my favorite wineries for many years. I have a bias built up from tasting so many great wines from the iconic winemaker Paul Draper that include the Geyersville, Lytton Springs, and Pagani Ranch Zinfandels. The original winery atop Monte Bello Ridge at 2600 feet above sea level was founded in 1885 by an Italian Immigrant Osea Perrone. Mr. Draper’s philosophy (he has a degree in it from Stanford) is to let nature do the work and to interfere with it as little as possible. If your pocket book can afford it, please try some of his wines before he retires from the scene; they are as different as they are delicious.
I would like to reiterate the basis for this column, since I have been writing it for over a year. I am not connected in any way to the wine trade. Neither am I an employee of any grocery store. I have had a lifelong love of good food and wine and I would like to share my observations about proper cooking (not using anything out of a can for example). Real cooking will mean a lot to your guests at a dinner or picnic and you’ll get a satisfying sense of accomplishment. I also want to pair proper wines to go with the recipe in my column. And finally make sure that the wines and foods I select are available locally either in stores or from local artisans. Please enjoy.
“The synergy of well-made food and matching wines really makes a simple meal a great one”